Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine were first introduced to readers in the classic Vertigo series Sandman back in 1990 as part of the ‘Seasons of Mist’ collection. It is there that the characters meet for the first time. When hell is emptied, Edwin is returned to the world of the living only to watch helplessly as Charles is murdered in the same school where Edwin met his end. The two boys avoid crossing into death, preferring to stay on and investigate weird and supernatural mysteries that no other alive detectives would be equipped to deal with.
Since first appearing in the Sandman, the boys have continued to pop up from time to time in related texts, including the crossover series Children’s Crusade, their own dedicated mini-series Sandman Presents: Dead Boy Detectives, as well as featuring in Death: At Death’s Door. In early 2013 it was announced that they would be getting their own on-going spin-off series written by Toby Litt and Mark Buckingham, with Buckingham also doing the artwork. Volume one of the trade paperbacks for Dead Boy Detectives was released in July this year, with volume two due out in February of 2015.
Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine are ghosts. They have been dead a long time. Determined to stay in the world of the living, they have managed to outrun death. Dealing with both their own kind as well as the living, the boys help solve mysteries. They are the dead boy detectives.
The boys don’t always see eye to eye, however, with Charles often being distracted by a pretty face while Edwin stays focused on the goal. When the boys save the life of Crystal Palace, daughter of an avant-garde artist and rock n roll musician, the boys find themselves pulled back to their old alma mater, St. Hilarion’s – the site of both boy’s deaths. Can they save the girl and battle their own demons? And will Charles get the girl?
The Dead Boy Detectives is another in a long line of tales featuring teenaged private detectives. Luckily, it is far more in the vein of Veronica Mars than Nancy Drew. Given the unusually supernatural elements at work within the boys themselves, their cases tend to be more on the weird side than your standard detective stories. They deal with other ghosts, demons, possession, and strange magics.
There’s one problem though, most of their ‘mysteries’ actually turn into rescue missions. So, while on the surface their stories are detective tales, they are also adventure tales. If anything, I would argue they are more of the latter. The boys always manage to save the day and overcome the evils, but they don’t ever seem to actually get to the bottom of the mystery. The why’s and how’s of the events that have taken place remain a mystery. If reader’s approach the stories in more an adventure mind-set they won’t be as disappointed with the lack of answers as they might be if they were expecting a true sleuth tale. In the end, they are more like the ‘dead boy fix-its’ than detectives.
Case by case
Like most stories centred on private detectives, the stories are episodic in nature, with each new story arc representing a new case the boys take on. The first trade paperback contains three separate cases, ‘Run Ragged’, ‘Schoolboy Terrors’, and ‘Halfway House’. The first of them, ‘Run Ragged’ is by far the weakest of the three, feeling mostly like an expository story, trying to establish the premise and the characters of Charles and Edwin. There is some method to this, as the boys are not the focus of the following mysteries, but the mystery simply isn’t interesting enough – finding a dead girl’s dead cat. Yup, finding a lost pet is where it’s at in ‘Run Ragged’… sure, they get caught up in saving a number of child ghosts from an evil Victorian teacher ghost, but it’s not enough to rescue this limp tale.
Luckily, things really pick up in ‘Schoolboy Terrors’. From then on, the boys join forces with the living, in the form of Crystal Palace. Crystal has had an unusual upbringing with terribly irresponsible and selfish parents. She loves online gaming and cosplay, so is immediately likeable to someone like me (aka a fellow geek). As Crystal gets thrown into the path of danger time and again, the boys worry that instead of being her protectors, they are drawing her into their troublesome world. But in reality, Crystal is fascinated by the supernatural world coexisting with her reality, seeking out the danger herself. Her spunky, go-get-‘em attitude helps to push the boys into action, making the tales far more thrilling from then on.
Verdict: Once the writers warm up, the stories take off. The series is a fun supernatural adventure story with three kids from different times. Each character brings their own foibles to the solving of mysteries, which inevitably turn into rescue missions of good against evil. There’s certainly a lot of potential for great stories in Dead Boy Detectives’ future.
Be sure to check out the Pop Verse guest post by Dead Boy Detectives writer Toby Litt where he likens writing comics to opera (yeah, who would’ve thought?!).